In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court on January 21, 2010 struck down the 60-year-old federal prohibition on corporate independent expenditures in candidate elections in Citizens United v. FEC. By a vote of 8-1, however, the Supreme Court, upheld the electioneering communications disclosure provisions that were enacted as a part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). In finding the longstanding corporate prohibition unconstitutional, Justice Kennedy writing for the majority overturned part of the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in McConnell v. FEC (2003) and all of its decision in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), both of which had upheld the constitutionality of restrictions on corporate expenditure. Justice Stevens dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.
The Citizens United case began as a challenge to BCRA's "electioneering communications" corporate funding restriction and disclosure requirements as applied to plaintiff's film Hillary: The Movie and its advertisements promoting the film. On July 18, 2008, the district court granted the FEC's motion for summary judgment, holding that the film was the "functional equivalent of express advocacy" and therefore could be constitutionally subject to the corporate funding restrictions. Citizens United appealed to the Supreme Court.
It was only in its opening brief filed with the Supreme Court that Citizens United first argued that the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce should be overruled. Instead of deciding the case on statutory grounds or on narrow constitutional grounds, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of ordering reargument on the question of whether the Court should overrule its past decisions affirming the constitutionality of restrictions on corporate electoral expenditures. The decision that followed rejected or reinterpreted the Supreme Court’s previous decisions finding that the government had a compelling interest in regulating corporate spending in elections.
The CLC was involved in the litigation from the beginning, filing one amici brief with the district court and two amici briefs with the Supreme Court. The district court brief and first Supreme Court brief focused on the constitutionality of the BCRA disclosure requirements. The second Supreme Court brief, filed upon the Court’s order for reargument, addressed the broader question of the validity of the Austin and McConnell decisions.